December 14, 2011; Source: Moscow TimesIn the United States, there is a big debate among nonprofits about whether some sources of charitable donations are offensive. Some groups have developed “gift acceptance” guidelines identifying categories of generally corporate donors whose grants are to be avoided as antithetical to the recipient’s values. Typical categories are corporations that manufacture handguns or liquor—or tobacco. But there are plenty of people who would argue that a nonprofit would be foolish to turn down money regardless of the source, that many kinds of corporate money are questionable if one digs deeply enough into how the money was made, and that the source doesn’t really matter so long as the funds are used productively and positively (or charitably). Either way, it is not legislatively mandated by the federal government or any state government that a nonprofit cannot accept grants from Smith & Wesson or Philip Morris.

But in Russia, the gift acceptance movement is moving along a legislative path when it comes to tobacco money. The government’s Health and Social Development Ministry is considering legislation to prevent international tobacco companies from dispensing grants to Russian charities. How much money would this mean? The Moscow Times reports that the three biggest multinational tobacco companies (British American Tobacco, Philip Morris, and Japan Tobacco International) apparently donate $6 million to Russian charities annually. Already, Russian law prohibits tobacco companies from giving to causes for children and sports—big-time charitable issues in Russia—so the “tobacco companies give particularly large sums to initiatives that support old people,” an area with typically less appeal to corporate donors.” Note that domestic Russian tobacco companies apparently do not give money to charities.

As one might expect, the tobacco companies aren’t happy with the prospect of being prevented from dispensing their charitable good will. The Business and Society journal’s editor, Tatyana Bachinskaya, suggested that the government’s position was hypocritical, as the government collects “huge” tax revenues from the tobacco companies it claims to dislike (the Ministry is also considering a ban on indoor smoking, a tough move in a very smoking-friendly country). In addition, the legislation seems to be unclear about the distinctions between corporate philanthropy, advertising, and sponsorships.

The proposed legislation raises numerous questions: If a corporate sector is allowed to function, produce, and sell, what sense does it make to ban its philanthropy? Does corporate philanthropy by companies that pollute or poison or otherwise harm the public’s health buy the allegiance of nonprofits and the public? Should nonprofits in the United States be more exercised about the charitable giving of companies such as the tobacco industry or the global warming–denying Exxon or the companies that pull their ads from a TV show that presents American Muslims as regular people? If cities in the United States are increasing taxes on cigarettes and banning smoking in public places, does it make sense to wink at tobacco philanthropy? What do you think?—Rick Cohen